The Standard Gauge Railway – what it has so far been for Uganda!
Railway transport is one of the most reliable means of transport for particularly large cargo, even better if it is the right gauge. Uganda, however, has long been using the railway line that was constructed by the colonial powers to facilitate the movement of commodities and people to the coast. This was the One-Meter gauge that does not favour the transportation of highly perishable goods for its speed.
It is against this background that the government currently seeks to construct a 1.4 Meter gauge, better known as a Standard Gauge Railway. Either the urgency of this project or the desires of individuals has influenced the catalysing of the signing of Memorandums of Understanding with different companies. Contracts are currently being negotiated with China Harbour Engineering Corporation after the termination of the Memorandum of Understanding with China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation by the Minister of Works and transport.
On 4th November 2014 parliament directed that a select committee be set up to investigate the procurement process of the Standard Gauge Railway in Uganda being carried out by the Ministry of Works. Parliament set out the terms of reference for the Committee and these included the following: Inquiry into the procurement process; examination of the contract signed by government & advice on viability; inquiry into the circumstances for the termination of the contract between Government and China Civil Eng. Construction Corporation (CCECC) and to inquire into the conduct of government officers in the matters above.
On the 11th of November, the committee was instituted by the Speaker of Parliament. The Committee started its business on the 18th of the same month, setting out their work plan and naming their persons of interests, which included, among others, the Cabinet Minister of Works and Transport along with his deputies, the President of the Republic of Uganda, Permanent Secretaries from three ministries, technical personnel and representatives from the Chinese companies associated with the Standard Gauge Railway.
There ought to have been a root cause for a matter of this magnitude to be investigated by Parliament. This is because in in October 2014, there was a petition presented by a team of Members of Parliament, who included Hon. Theodore Ssekikubo, Hon. Abdu Katuntu, Hon. Paul Mwiru, Hon. Tinkasimire Barnabas, and Hon. Wilfred Niwagaba.
The construction of the Standard Gauge Railway is expected to cost the Country a whooping USD 6.69 billion borrowed from the Chinese Exim Bank, with a possibility of the cost increasing to USD 13 billion by the time it is concluded. This is because the terms of the proposed contract that the committee has now dug from the witnesses it has been interfacing with has revealed that it is subject to variations on the prices.
The select committee has since met several witnesses to get to the root of the problem. Notable however was the President’s involvement. Under normal circumstances, when Parliament requests the presence of the President, he appears before the Committee or House accordingly. In this case, however, he opted to sit at the comfort of State House Entebbe and “summon” the members of the Committee to interact with him regarding the procurement process of the Standard Gauge Railway. In fact, he even had this meeting behind closed doors and there was no press record!
Another interesting incident that the Committee encountered was the meeting it had with another witness, Rosa Whitaker, (an American national the President apparently termed as a “black Compatriot” in one of his letters) whose name has been mentioned in several meetings as an individual who has been lobbying for contracts for China Harbour Engineering Corporation. It emerged that she attended a particular meeting with officials from the Ministry of Works and on the agenda was how to by-pass the procurement process set by the laws of Uganda. Well, the Committee eventually got an opportunity to interact with her, and yet again, this was behind closed doors. It was reported that this was after the president called the Chairperson of the Committee and advised him to “handle her with care”. I am also wondering the credibility of information the committee could have obtained from her or whether the committee has not been compromised!
Recently, however, the committee met with the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Works, Mr Muganzi Charles, who was in office at the time the procurement process was initiated. His revelations, to some extent was no longer news to the committee, however, there was a twist in the events. The press was asked to leave the room since he wanted to reveal 16 officials involved in the procurement process who had been compromised and had taken bribes accordingly from the Chinese companies interested in the Standard Gauge Railway construction.
While they (members of the committee) were meeting Mr Muganzi Charles, a cross section of Members of Parliament under the umbrella African Parliamentarians’ Network Against Corruption Uganda Chapter (APNAC) held a parallel press conference protesting the manner in which the investigations were being conducted. Hon. Karuhanga, a member of APNAC, expressed his disappointment stating that the decision by the committee chairperson to work on the directive of the president is a sign of weak leadership. APNAC now wants the Speaker of Parliament to reconstitute the committee since they believe the committee, as is, is not positioned to deliver justice to Uganda.
Notwithstanding the fact that Uganda needed this railway for faster economic growth, the style exhibited by the government officials have so far been jaw dropping. Earlier on, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic Development, Mr Keith Muhakinizi had revealed to the Committee that the cost of the railway would increase the national debt burden to over 80%. He noted that after subjecting the cost to variations in the cost of raw materials, it could be more than the National Budget for two years!
Nevertheless, the committee is still conducting their investigations and fingers are still crossed as to whether the truth shall be exhumed from wherever it has been kept. We, rather, I await their final findings!